In the "Battle Royal" chapter of Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, what are some examples of tone, diction, theme, and irony that represent how the past affects the character's perception or understanding of the present?
The effects of the past on the narrator’s perception of the present are particularly important in the “Battle Royal” section of Chapter 1 of Ralph Ellison’s novel The Invisible Man. In fact, in the very second sentence of this section, the narrator reports that
All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was.
This statement explicitly emphasizes the influence of the past as a major theme of the book. It also suggests that the present and future can partly escape the influence of the past if one is willing to listen clearly to oneself.
The past as an influence on the present occurs elsewhere in this section, such as in the following instances:
- when the narrator comments on his new-found lack of shame about the fact that his grandparents had been slaves.
- when the narrator’s grandfather, on his deathbed, advises his son (the narrator’s father) to be subversively defiant in his relations with whites. Thus, one generation attempts to pass along an assertive attitude to the next, and the narrator himself seems influenced by his grandfather’s dying words. Indeed, the narrator meditates during the course of a long paragraph (very early in the “battle royal” section) on the meaning and influence of his grandfather’s words.
- The narrator feels torn between obeying his complacent parents and heeding his secretly defiant grandfather. Thus he feels torn by loyalty to the recent past and loyalty to the more distant past.
- The narrator feels the influence of the words and ideals of Booker T. Washington, an important figure of the past, but he also feels skeptical about Washington’s cooperative attitude toward whites.
- The narrator is influenced by the long custom of having black boys fight each other in a battle royal.
- The narrator is influenced by another custom related to the battle: the custom “for the two men left in the ring to slug it out for the winner’s prize.” This is a custom of which the other young African Americans are aware, but of which the narrator is ignorant. Ellison thus shows that ignorance of customs (that is, ignorance of the ways of the past) can be dangerous to the person who displays such ignorance. Even more danger (and pain) results from the narrator’s ignorance of the custom of making the winners of the fight pick up their winnings from an electrified rug.
- The degrading behavior forced upon the narrator during and after the fight is made all the more degrading when he must quote the words of Booker T. Washington, who celebrated cooperation between the races. The realities of the narrator’s present contrast bleakly with the ideals extolled by Washington in the past.